In the days of the Republic, shipbuilding was one of the most important industries of the Dutch economy. By the end of the 16th century shipbuilding had developed into a well-organised industry with a high level of specialisation, an enormous output and an international market. Its growth and expansion continued well into the 17th century. At the beginning of the 18th century, however, the situation had changed dramatically. The United Provinces no longer ruled the seas and the industry received little incentive because of the country's weakened economic and military position, which was the result of a continuing state of war. For readers who are not familiar with Dutch history it must be explained here that before 1795 Holland did not have one centralised Navy. Instead, there were five Admiralties for the coastal provinces. Although these resorted under the States General, provincial politics - especially on financial issues - also had far-going negative effects on the efficiency of the Navy as a whole. Shipbuilding in the Naval dockyards dwindled almost to the point of non-existence, until the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in the 1780's caused a sudden revival of production. Meanwhile merchant shipping had suffered greatly because of the recession of the Dutch economy in the 18th century. The liquidation of the Dutch East India Company (1796) and the Batavian Period with the Napoleonic Wars (1795-1813) were disastrous for private shipbuilding and the merchant fleet.

Although the 18th century thus appears to have been a rather bleak period for Dutch maritime history, it was nevertheless a time of important achievements in the field of naval shipbuilding: the practice of making technical drawings and models was introduced and the industry evolved from an old craftsmanship into a modern technology. At the end of the century, under the influence of the French Revolution and the reforms of 1795, the old Navy was replaced by one centralised institution. When the Netherlands became independent again in 1815, King William I tried to stimulate the shipbuilding industry as best he could. Whereas in the 16th and 17th centuries private enterprise and the Dutch East India Company had been the driving forces behind the technical developments in shipbuilding, this time it was the Navy. The private companies assumed an attitude of conservatism and were reluctant to take risks, perhaps one of the more negative side effects of William I's protectionism. The Navy on the other hand suddenly proved to be an extremely innovative, dynamic and productive institution, closely following developments abroad, introducing new concepts of ship design, construction and propulsion, while also experimenting with new materials, instruments, equipment, etc..

On February 20, 1817 the Dutch Navy Office started a collection of models concerning the construction and equipment of ships and maritime works, 'for a better understanding of the everyday affairs of the ministry'. It was one of William I's acts of stimulation of the national economy and technological development. The Navy Model Collection was one of the first state collections to be open for the general public; its role can best be described as a mixture of a research and development and a public relations department 'avant la lettre' of the Navy. The responsibilities of the curators, of whom former dockyard superintendent J.P. Asmus (1765-1832) was the first, also encompassed the supervision of the library and the collection of charts, maps and technical drawings. In 1796 Asmus had already started collecting for the Navy from the former Admiralty collections and he moreover contributed a considerable private collection of models and drawings.

The collection contains a large number of ship models and half models of ships: these can be designs, but also models demonstrating specific constructive aspects or made for educational purposes, or merely show pieces. This part of the collection is not restricted to warships only: the curators also had an eye for merchant shipping and pleasure craft. Apart from shipmodels, the collection has a large number of technical models dating mostly from the 19th century. These cover all kinds of subjects relating to industrial, technical and scientific developments, such as the construction of docks, harbours and bridges, but also steam engines, telegraphic apparatus, lighthouses, artillery and other weapons, tools, measuring equipment and samples of materials, etc.. A third category of objects consists of memorabilia, objects of art and ethnographica. As a whole the collection transcends the field of maritime history, its character being definitely polytechnical and historical.

The collection covers the period 1698-1885. Seventy-two years after its founding the Navy Model Collection was discontinued as an institution of the Navy Office. Through the good offices of Victor de Stuers the collection was transferred to the Dutch Museum of History and Art in 1883-1889, a department of the then brand-new Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where most of it was put on display. In 1927 this department was split up and the collection was allocated to the new department of Dutch History. When soon after the display was revised, the collection disappeared into the storerooms, from whence it never reappeared.

Tackling a collection of this size and complexity - almost 1600 objects, all of them highly specialised - is not an undertaking to be thought of lightly. About ten years ago - in 1984 - the collection seemed a vast jumble of unidentifiable and complicated objects and parts, a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. However, our surprise rose by the minute when it became clear how much material related to the objects could be retraced. For the 19th century the collection runs almost parallel to the nautical journals of the Navy, which appeared over a period of almost 100 years between 1788 and 1880. The complementary collections of technical drawings, which had originally formed one whole together with the models, were traced in the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, the General State Archives in The Hague and the Historical Bureau of the Navy. The most important material, however, was recovered by delving through miles of Naval Office archives. Thus the basis for the ensuing research and catalogue was laid. We now estimate that we have recovered material relating to almost 80% of the objects. In four years time, starting in 1990, the collection was catalogued at full speed, all the objects were cleaned, completed as much as possible and restored (as yet only cosmetically), and the entire collection was photographed.

Apart from its museological importance owing to its size and unmistakable quality, the collection has opened paths to historical and scientific research on a far larger scale. This is due both to the historical range covered by the collection, as to the character of the source-material itself. The models are three-dimensional sources which, unlike most written sources, can be measured and make clearly visible the construction and functioning of originals that have disappeared themselves. But they are much more important than that: they often represent a crucial moment in the creative process and the design of a technological innovation, unlike regular archaeological sources which are mostly no more than samples of the end product. They also represent key moments in the decision-making process of a large hierarchical institution: many models actually landed on the desk of the Naval Secretary and were discussed with a number of engineers before being accepted - or rejected. Problems such as invention, testing, acceptance, success and failure, which are key problems in the history of technology, are thus made accessible by the objects themselves and the archival material which the research unearthed.

It is very fortunate that, with some regrettable exceptions, the collection has been preserved as a whole. The collection can be said to be a 'root' collection for Dutch maritime history, but its importance goes even further than that, for it not only documents, but also supplements the history of technology in the Netherlands up to the point where the current historical views will have to be seriously reconsidered.